Jewish World Review August 14, 2003 / 16 Menachem-Av, 5763

Evan Weiner

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Sports playing the defense | There was to be a celebration of basketball in New York this week. Team USA, the guys who hope to represent our country in Athens next year, were to get together in New York and try to make us feel good - about the NBA and the U.S.A. Instead, their presence here in the media capital of the country may become NBA Commissioner David Stern's biggest headache. Rather than glowing photo opportunities, these players may have to constantly explain why it has been such a difficult summer for Stern and their sport.

Earlier this week, the players reported to training camp at John Jay College on Manhattan's West Side. They will be asked over and over about one of their erstwhile teammates, Kobe Bryant, who was replaced by Vince Carter earlier this summer when Bryant injured his knee. Now, because of his legal troubles, Bryant is subject to the same media frenzy as Gary Condit, O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky. But Bryant is not the only star in the hot seat. Nine other NBA players have been arrested since April 11 on charges ranging from assault to marijuana possession.

Stern had hoped to recapture the public's appetite for his product with 10 days of the American flag wrapping around his players with New York practices and an exhibition game against Puerto Rico this Friday night at the Garden as part of the 2004 Olympic Games qualifying tournament. It would have been great having players running around the city, talking up the sport and going for the gold.

Instead, there will be plenty of stark reminders that all is not well in the NBA, starting with Bryant's absence. On the squad will be Jason Kidd, who was traded by Phoenix to New Jersey after his Jan. 18, 2001, arrest on a misdemeanor domestic abuse charge for striking his wife, Joumana. Kidd's backcourt partner will be the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson, who always seems to draw trouble.

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Speaking of court trouble, the basketball court kind, no one should be particularly surprised that the New York Knickerbockers aren't represented on Team USA. The Knicks, as they say, are in a transitional period. (In other words, they will be mediocre and hoping to land a top player in the 2004 NBA draft.) They just dumped one of their marquee players, Latrell Sprewell.

You might remember that Spree came to the Knicks about five years ago after being suspended by the NBA for choking his Golden State Warriors coach, P. J. Carlesimo, during a practice in Oakland. The Warriors fired Sprewell and terminated his $32-million contract. The NBA barred him from playing for a year. But the National Basketball Players Association filed a grievance and an arbitrator, John Feerick, reduced his punishment and ordered the Warriors to rehire him. Shortly thereafter, Golden State traded him to the Knicks.

Feerick's ruling defanged Stern, hampering his ability to discipline his employees. Stern's power is further eroded by the fact that fans, media people, sponsors, corporate partners and those on the NBA beat care only about the final result when the buzzer sounds and don't seem to even think about character and responsibility. If a player can play, he plays. Just ask Mets fans about Doc, Darryl and the rest of the 1986 Mets.

Knicks fans welcomed Sprewell with open arms after they found out he "got game" and were outraged when he left. The New York Times had a column about General Manager Scott Layden, "The Knicks Expert in Mediocrity," which bemoaned the trading of the "charismatic" and "most popular player" for a soft player like Keith Van Horn. Van Horn's biggest crime is that he is a decent player who seems to be a decent guy.

When I tuned in recently, the sports talk show callers were irate and would have preferred that the Knicks had acquired Glenn Robinson, who moved from Atlanta to Philadelphia as part of the four-team trade. What the callers might or might not have known is that Robinson is not available for the first three games of the upcoming season because of a domestic assault conviction.

There is no getting around it: Stern has some major problems, and no easy solutions are at hand. The July 18 indictment of Bryant in Eagle County, Colo., for sexual assault is just one misdeed in an off season filled with court cases.

And it's not just players who have had summertime problems. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was hit with a sexual harassment suit filed by a former employee at his real estate business. She alleged that Sterling made "unwanted and offensive physical contact" with her.

Stern knows the NBA needs to be reined in, but there is almost nothing he can do. The Players Association will fight any disciplinary action, and fans are too absorbed with winning to be concerned with off-the-field antics, which is why Sprewell was so popular in New York.

And with the way things are today, all of this legal action might even help Bryant with advertisers if he is found not guilty. It might give him "street credibility," as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has suggested. Basketball players who live on the edge are the darlings of the sneaker companies because they appeal to street ballers.

Baseball manager Leo Durocher, who thought winning required toughness, even ruthlessness, must have been talking for every sports-talk show caller when he said, "Nice guys finish last."

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JWR contributor Evan Weiner is a radio commentator on "The Business of Sports" for Westwood One's Metro Networks. He is being presented with the United States Sports Academy's Distinguished Service Award for 2003. Comment on this column by clicking here.


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© 2003, Evan Weiner